In December 2021, People & Planet conducted sector research into the investment portfolios of all UK universities. This research uncovered approximately £327 million in university investment portfolios dedicated to arms, detention, surveillance and other industries implicated in human rights abuses against migrants at the Kingdom’s borders United and Europe.
These companies include Mitie and Serco (which run detention centers in the UK with a history of widespread neglect and abuse), Airbus (which provides drones to track the movement of migrants in the Mediterranean and watch them drown) and tech giant Accenture (which touted refugees as potential terrorists as a selling point for its surveillance systems).
Border and immigration enforcement does not happen in a vacuum. Someone needs to build it, outfit it, and maintain it – and it turns out it can be a lot of money. Western governments are increasingly relying on private companies to secure their borders. People & Planet’s list of border cessions identifies 60 publicly traded companies that engage in business activities that form the backbone of contemporary immigration and border policies.
In addition to constructing and arming the physical borders that characterize borders, this involves collecting, storing and analyzing mountains of personal data on migrants; the development of “smart” border technologies such as drones and armed robot dogs; and the detention and deportation of those targeted by these facilities. The involvement of private companies is not only an economic exercise for States, it changes the very nature of border control.
UK universities are not neutral spectators. They have invested colossal sums in the companies involved and therefore continue to profit from the perpetual violence at the borders. Moreover, their research programs are often shaped by the same private companies that also donate to fund research. They have also become part of the hostile environment. As part of the Home Office’s duty to carry out immigration checks, university administrations act as overzealous border guards, willing to sacrifice the welfare of their own international students and staff for fear of losing the right to issue visas.
Community-led direct action
The Cardiff Metropolitan pledge is a rebuke to the UK government’s tough stance on immigration. This first campaign victory also shows the importance of grassroots action in our communities and in the institutions of which we are a part. Faced with what appears to be a constant human rights deadlock in parliaments, the UK has seen an upsurge in community and direct action for border justice over the past year – from Kenmure Street to the successful blocking of the first scheduled deportation flight to Rwanda. The Divest Borders campaign promises to become the student arm of this movement.
Drawing on lessons learned from the fossil fuel divestment movement, students across the UK are mounting campaigns to demand that their universities follow Cardiff Met’s lead and divest from the frontier industry.
This summer, activists who successfully halted TUI airline deportation flights have shown that border companies are vulnerable campaign targets. Their profits and operations often depend on their reputation and credibility.
Divestment is not the end point, but it is a step towards a world free from borders and the violence inherent in maintaining them. Students in the UK have the opportunity to join this movement and lead their universities to divest from the frontier industry.